This Mother’s Day, celebrating three matriarchs of Texas cookbooks

May 08, 2017
  • By Maggie Perkins
  • Special to the American-Statesman
Helen Corbitt popularized the black-eyed pea salad, called Texas caviar today. Contributed by Maggie Perkins

Long before celebrity chefs on television encouraged us to add just one more stick of butter, drizzle a little more EVOO or add some “Bam!” to our dishes, Helen Corbitt taught Texas cooks how to master cream sauces.

Before we frittered away hours consulting Pinterest, Mary Faulk Koock was the foremost authority on elegant entertaining, Texas-style. And before search engines became the primary tool to explore recipes, Marjorie Winn Ford was teaching a generation of earth mothers a new way to prepare healthy meals and feed families.

We have these midcentury matriarchs of Texas cookbookery to thank this Mother’s Day for educating cooks of their time and setting the standard in food and entertainment for generations that followed.

Helen Corbitt, a Yankee transplant who moved, reluctantly, to Texas in 1940, cooked her way through the University of Texas, Houston Country Club, Joske’s department store and the Driskill Hotel before being wooed by Stanley Marcus to become food director for Neiman Marcus.

She introduced then-exotic foods such as asparagus, artichokes and more to Texan plates, and ruled the famous Zodiac Room with an iron spoon. Ladies donned a hat and gloves and gentlemen a suit and tie to sip Corbitt’s chilled consommé as models breezed about the floor in the latest Neiman fashions.

Corbitt presented food artistically, utilized new flavor and ingredient combinations and introduced Texans to the best food available. Her influence would encourage cooks of the time to experiment with their own preparations and expand their culinary repertoire.

The next time you find yourself scooping a black-eyed pea salad known regionally as Texas caviar onto a corn chip, you have Helen Corbitt to thank. The dish was originally named Pickled Black-Eyed Peas and was published in “Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook,” one of five now out-of-print cookbooks that you should keep your eyes peeled for at garage sales and thrift stores. (See box.)

The 1960s would usher in an age of relative prosperity, and Texas hostesses were champing at the bit for parties. Any kind of parties. Teas. Showers. Bridge clubs. Auxiliary clubs. Galas. Picnics. You name it — there was a party for it.

It would be Mary Faulk Koock, the woman responsible for transforming Green Pastures from a family home to a long-loved local restaurant, that Texas cooks would emulate. Koock catered parties for everyone who was anyone, including President LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson.

The premier Austin caterer and hostess, Koock was perhaps the prototype, on a grand scale, for the modern-day events coordinator. Always the life of the party, Koock gave grand parties befitting a grand state and shared all of the details in her classic and seminal work “The Texas Cookbook,” one of several recipe collections in which she had her hand. Her chatty and cheerful prose made one feel befriended and mentored by the hostess of the midcentury.

The 1970s were a time of social upheaval when the traditions and practices of an earlier era were brought into question and ladies’ luncheons and gelled aspics gave way to women in the workforce. A few years before, the Summer of Love and the greater hippie movement encouraged an entire generation of home cooks to have appreciation for wholesome, organic foods and to get back to nature.

Marjorie Winn Ford, a Panhandle Texan, then-wife to organic farmer John Ford, co-founder of Texas-based Arrowhead Mills company and author of “The Deaf Smith Country Cookbook: Natural Foods for Family Kitchens,” chronicled more than 200 healthy plant-based recipes in the book, which continues to enjoy a cult following today.

Copies of tattered and dog-eared “Deaf Smith Country Cookbook,” co-authored with Koock with illustrations by Susan Hillyard, would become the newly liberated cook’s trusted guide for a new way of cooking, eating and living.

In a thick paperback volume peppered with Bible verses and straightforward assurance, cooks learned about how to use tofu, safflower oil and yogurt to make meat-free meals. With just a little digging, you might find a dusty copy still on bookshelves of free spirits and whole-food enthusiasts today.

As some of the early well-known cookbook authors in the state, each of these notable women left an imprint on the way Texans cook still seen today. Perhaps the grandmothers’ bridge club luncheons in the 1950s might inform how you host a modern-day book club, or you might still crave your mother’s poppy seed dressing for your grown-up fruit salad, or, just perhaps, like so many Texans will, you hang your luck for the coming year on Corbitt’s “caviar” eaten religiously on the first day of the year.

Texas Caviar

Helen Corbitt’s intro for this recipe reads: “In the South, the black-eyed pea is the traditional good-luck food for New Year’s Day and a good Texan eats them some time during the day to insure prosperity for the coming year — whether he likes them or not. I came to Texas wide-eyed and innocent about such shenanigans — I didn’t like the peas either. So-o-o, I pickled them. Since then I serve few parties at any time of the year without them. And the men, how they love them!”

You’ll note that she doesn’t mince or chop the garlic, rather leaving it whole and then removing it from the bowl after a few days in the refrigerator. The original recipe called for No. 2-size cans, which were about 20 ounces, each, just larger than the typical cans sold today.

2 (16-ounce) cans black-eyed peas

1 cup salad oil

1/4 cup wine vinegar

1 clove garlic or garlic seasonings

1/4 cup thinly sliced onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cracked or freshly ground black pepper

Drain liquid from the peas. Place peas in pan or bowl, add remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Store in jar in refrigerator and remove garlic bud after one day. Store at least two days and up to two weeks before eating. You’ll need a plate and fork for these. Red kidney beans and garbanzos, do the same.

— Helen Corbitt

Hot Cheese Sticks

Mary Faulk Koock attributed this recipe to the wife of Few Brewster, an associate justice in the Supreme Court of Texas in the 1940s and 1950s. Her recipe doesn’t specify cooked bacon, but you’ll need to cook the bacon before cutting into pieces and mixing with the cheese, eggs, onion and Worcestershire, a staple of the era.

1/2 pound Old English cheese, grated

1/4 pound bacon, cut in small pieces

2 eggs, beaten

1 medium onion, chopped

Dash of Worcestershire sauce

Mix above ingredients and spread on rye bread cut into thirds or rounds, toasted on one side. Broil until cheese is melted and hot.

— Mary Faulk Koock

Zippy Dip

In an era of short recipes, Marjorie Winn Ford’s were shorter than most. This is her recipe for Zippy Dip, the accompaniment to a tray full of fresh vegetable crudites, nestled in crushed ice.

1 cup homemade cottage cheese

1/2 cup homemade yogurt

2 scallions, chopped fine

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

Blend all ingredients for 30 seconds at medium speed. Correct seasoning. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

— Marjorie Winn Ford